William A. Wulf, pioneering computer scientist, dies at 83
William A. Wulf, a pioneering researcher, entrepreneur, and computer policymaker who helped adapt an early Pentagon communications network to the network that eventually evolved into the Internet, died March 10 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 83 years old.
The University of Virginia confirmed his death, in a hospice, but did not give a cause.
Dr. Wulf made a career in computer science when this field barely existed. As the importance of computers grew, his career became a road map of the developing field: first in academic research, then as an entrepreneur, then as a policy maker. Later, he led efforts to reshape and inspire thinking about engineering conduct, progress, and ethics.
William Allan Wulf was born in Chicago on December 8, 1939, the only son of an engineer who was disabled at a young age by Parkinson’s disease. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As a graduate student at the University of Virginia in 1968, Dr. Wulf was one of the first people to receive a doctorate. in computer science, a new academic offshoot of applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and related disciplines.
After completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a center for computer science research. There he worked on computer architecture and programming languages, in particular compilers, which translate programs written in so-called “high-level” languages, such as Java or C++ today, into steps that a computer can execute. .
He and his wife, Anita K. Jones, also a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, left the university in 1981 to found Tartan Laboratories, specializing in compilers (and named after the university’s sports teams).
By the time Dr. Wulf and Dr. Jones left the company, in 1988, it was cited as one of the high-tech companies transforming Pittsburgh from a rusty steel town into a high-tech powerhouse. It was later sold to Texas Instruments.
Dr. Wulf and Dr. Jones held faculty positions at the University of Virginia, but Dr. Wulf took time off to join the Computing and Information Science and Engineering Branch at the National Science Foundation. There he worked with then-Senator Al Gore to craft legislation to make the military’s computer network, Arpanet, available to civilian researchers through the foundation’s NSFnet. This model eventually gave way to widely accessible and commercially operated networks.
According to the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional group, Dr. Wulf was “one of a very small, distinguished group of people who made significant and essential contributions to the creation of the modern Internet.”
In 1990 he returned to the University of Virginia, whose computer science program had become a separate department in 1984 and was chaired by Dr. Jones. She survives him, along with their two daughters, Ellen Wulf Epstein and Karin Wulf, and four grandsons.
Over the years, he has been honored by all major computer science professional societies, as well as the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other groups.
In 1993 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and in 1996 he was named interim president — in part, the academy said in a statement about his death, to “restore its focus.” and mend its frayed relationships with the academies. of medicine and science. The following year he was elected to complete that presidential term and in 2001 he was elected to a full six-year term.
Today, many engineers – and even many computer scientists – know him less for his technical achievements than for his work at the academy, where, among other things, he theorized about the factors necessary to encourage innovation in engineering ( tax credits are inefficient, he argued, and monopolies are not necessarily a bad thing); advocated ardently for greater diversity in the field (because it pays economic dividends); and, in one of its last official acts, established the Center for Engineering, Ethics and Society, which produced reports offering guidance for dealing with complex technologies, including in genetics research and l teaching of evolution.
“The complexity of newly designed systems, coupled with their potential impact on life, the environment, etc., raises a set of ethical issues that engineers hadn’t thought of,” he said in an interview. 2008 describing the center.
“I don’t want to diminish his technical contributions,” University of Washington computer scientist Ed Lazowska said in an interview. Dr. Wulf and Dr. Jones “are giants in the field,” he said, but Dr. Wulf will be best remembered for his inspirational leadership in engineering.
In particular, he said, Dr. Wulf was “a great champion of broadening participation in the field” not only of women and members of other underrepresented groups, but also of people who do not not necessarily come from “large research universities, mainly on the coasts”. .”
Dr. Wulf called engineering “problem solving under constraints” – time, money or other practical problems. Bringing diverse experiences and viewpoints to issues, he said, increases the chances of success. Without diverse opinions, he told a 1998 academy meeting, “we pay an opportunity cost. A cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented.
Or, as Dr. Lazowska puts it: “You don’t have to be socially conscious. All you have to be is a capitalist who wants to make better things and sell more of them.
After leaving his position at the academy, Dr. Wulf returned to the University of Virginia. But he resigned in protest in 2012 after the university’s board of visitors, in a dispute partly over what some members saw as overspending on the humanities and not enough on online learning, forced the resignation of its president, Teresa Sullivan. She was rehired two weeks later after much protest.
Despite pleas, including from student protesters carrying signs praising ‘Our Hero Wulf’, Dr Wulf refused to return, saying he could not accept the council’s ‘command and control’ approach. administration, which he called “the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen”. seen.”
When discussing the joys of engineering, he often referenced a situation he encountered when he was a student at the University of Illinois, working a summer job for a company that made dialers. automatic telephones.
The company made a machine that read phone numbers from holes punched in plastic cards. Periodically the cards jammed and the machine broke down.
But when he looked at the device, he recalled in an interview years later, he had “a Eureka moment”. He could see what the problem was and how to fix it, and when he made a cardboard model of his design, it worked.
His idea earned him a bonus, he said, but his real reward was “the creative thrill” of engineering – designing something that solves a human problem.
“It’s addicting,” he said.
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